New Questions and Answers

September Q&A

Q. During the past few years, many people have developed the habit of beginning a sentence with the word so, typically when they are responding to a question. This includes politicians, talking heads on television, and others who one might think are “learned” individuals. My view is that the use of the initial so in a sentence is both unnecessary and annoying. Any thoughts? Thank you.

A. There have always been “throat-clearing” words. Even highly intelligent professional speakers need a little thinking room to organize thoughts before speaking. So is no worse than well or um. The trick is not to be annoyed.

Q. At the beginning of each interview in my book, I use an “epigraph” from the interviewee. My publisher, citing CMOS, tells me that the epigraph, which is not signed, cannot be centered. This makes the one or two-line epigraph look like a misprint. Can you tell me what is correct in these cases? The editor has never cited a specific CMOS reference, but just tells me “That’s the way it is.”

A. The position of an epigraph is normally decided by a graphic designer as part of a coherent design for the book as a whole. Depending on the design of the rest of your book, centered epigraphs might look amateurish. Your editor is probably referring to the design specifications, and he or she may be reluctant to ask a designer to change the specs. It’s fine to express your concern and ask whether the design can be tweaked. Centering is only one of many options.

Q. I would like to know more about the use of the modals can and may. Here in Brazil it is being taught that both can be used, as in “Can/May I erase the board?” Could you please distinguish both for me?

A. Traditionally, “Can I?” means “Am I able to?” whereas “May I?” means “Do I have permission to”?

Can I lift six times my weight? Can I get to the parking lot through this alley?

May I take your plate? May I go ahead of you in line?

This use of may is dying, however. We tend to hear it from grandparents when a child asks “Can I have some candy?” and the grandparent replies “May I!” Although it’s not rude to use can when you are asking permission, it is incorrect to use may when asking whether something is possible.

Q. I am editing a document in notes/bibliography style where the author has wordy footnotes rather than straight-up citations. For example: “There are a number of excellent biographies of Jane Austen and the outlines of her life story are nearly always rehearsed in articles on her work. Jane Doe, her friend, wrote the first authoritative biography. Joe Blogg’s Her Life Story is perhaps now the definitive. And John Doe’s short biography for the Penguin Lives Series has circulated widest.” And it goes on with several more. Since these sources are all in the bibliography, do I need to include all of the publishing info in the footnotes? We’re trying to keep them short.

A. You’re in luck: shortened note citations are actually preferred when there is a bibliography. Please see CMOS 14.24.

Q. Is it necessary to have commas before and after an appositive when referring to coaches? Example: We went to see Bengals coach Paul Brown to interview one of his players.

A. Coaches receive the same treatment as everyone else. Use commas with an appositive if the expression is not restrictive—that is, if it would make sense set off by parentheses:

We went to see Bengals coach Paul Brown.

We went to see the Bengals coach (Paul Brown).

We went to see the Bengals coach, Paul Brown.

See CMOS 5.21 and 6.22–24 for more on restriction and commas.

Q. Would you share a sample of proofreading marks on a manuscript page? I refer to figure 2.6 from the manual, but it does not explain where to position marks on the line and/or in the margins.

A. Certainly. Please see figure 2.5 for a marked-up manuscript (marks in the line) and figure 2.7 for marked proofs (marks in the margins).

Q. What punctuation is required for “including but not limited to”? I see many different opinions from many different sources.

A. No punctuation is required, but commas after including and to would work just fine; they may be helpful if the phrase introduces a long or complex list. Dashes would work as well.

Q. A book title is written in italics, as is the title of a musical album. Chapter names and songs are set between quotation marks. If I’m correct, the thinking behind this is that a song is usually part of an album or a play or some sort of larger work. However, it wasn’t that long ago that a song was a stand-alone work, released as sheet music or as a single on a 78 or 45 rpm record. LPs and the concept of an album came to prominence in the 1960s. So what do we do with “The Pineapple Rag,” which was never part of an album? It was released originally as sheet music and possibly as a player piano roll. Throughout most of music history, the song was the major work. Some songs, like “Money” on Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, are integral parts of the album, while Bach’s Minuet in G has nothing to do with any larger work. Doesn’t it make more sense to italicize song titles? This also eliminates all the awkward quotes and commas when listing the songs in an album or play. Thoughts?

A. Your viewpoint is valid. Songs can fall into more than one category and may reasonably be styled in different ways. There are similar issues with maps, which are sometimes a single page in an atlas and sometimes published as an independent pamphlet or work of art. Adapt the style to suit the document. If italics work better for your songs in a given context, by all means use italics.

Q. We are using quotes from community leaders who have supported our project over the years. Last year the name of the project changed from the Trinity Uptown Project to the Panther Island Project, and we are updating all materials to reflect that. One of the quotes from a community leader (who is now deceased) uses the term “Trinity Uptown.” What would be the proper way to amend that to show that the project is now called Panther Island while the original quote used the term Trinity Uptown?

A. You can use brackets in the quote to replace the words that are now wrong: Mayor Green said, “The [Panther Island] Project is terrific.” Or you can put an editor’s comment in square brackets: Mayor Green said, “The Trinity Uptown [now Panther Island] Project is terrific.” Or you can paraphrase: Mayor Green called the project “terrific.” You can also use the original quote as it is if it’s clear elsewhere that the name has changed.

Q. When a citation falls near the bottom of the page, and there is no room for the associated footnote, should that note be placed on the following page? Thanks!

A. Not exactly. Footnotes must at least begin on the same page as their text callout; they then may carry over and finish on the next page. An application like Microsoft Word takes care of this automatically: if there isn’t room for the note to begin on the same page, it will move the line of text with the callout to the next page. In published materials, typesetters do the same thing, only they “massage” the surrounding text so there aren’t any short pages as a result.

Q. A colleague has sent me your about-face from the 15th edition regarding punctuation following italicized words, and I am speechless. I’m afraid I’ll have to look for a new authority on style, because this decision is so vile, and makes text look so absolutely horrible that I refuse to follow the change. What’s next? Putting commas and periods outside quotation marks? You may as well go that route as well; it looks better than having a roman question mark or exclamation point after an italicized word. What’s wrong with you? Why couldn’t you leave well enough alone? Absolutely irrational, horrible decision. You should be ashamed of yourselves.

A. We will give that some thought.